Systems Approaches to Public Sector Challenges

Working with Change

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Complexity is a core feature of most policy issues today and in this context traditional analytical tools and problem-solving methods no longer work. This report, produced by the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, explores how systems approaches can be used in the public sector to solve complex or “wicked” problems . Consisting of three parts, the report discusses the need for systems thinking in the public sector; identifies tactics that can be employed by government agencies to work towards systems change; and provides an in-depth examination of how systems approaches have been applied in practice. Four cases of applied systems approaches are presented and analysed: preventing domestic violence (Iceland), protecting children (the Netherlands), regulating the sharing economy (Canada) and designing a policy framework to conduct experiments in government (Finland). The report highlights the need for a new approach to policy making that accounts for complexity and allows for new responses and more systemic change that deliver greater value, effectiveness and public satisfaction.


Systems approaches in the public sector: From theory to practice

This chapter discusses how systems approaches can deliver value to governments. It starts by discussing why systems approaches are needed in the public sector and why they have not so far been disseminated throughout the sector. The rate of change is continuously increasing and policy makers are confronted with various complex and wicked problems. Systems approaches can be very useful for addressing these problems. Applying a systemic lens to complex problems can help map the dynamics of the surrounding system, explore the ways in which the relationships between system components affect its functioning, and ascertain which interventions can lead to better results. Systems approaches help to demonstrate how systems are structured and how they operate. However, it is not easy to transform public systems. This chapter highlights the main challenges for systems approaches within the public sector: why it is difficult to act under uncertainty, learn from systems adjustments, turn systems off and account for the speed of change in the public sector. The chapter concludes with an overview of the emerging systems thinking practice in the public sector, and explores the question of how systemic approaches have been applied to the transformation of public service delivery.


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